Over the course of The Batman, Bruce Wayne faces some of his most difficult onscreen challenges yet: a serial killer who leaves a mysterious Zodiac-like string of clues, Gotham-wide governmental corruption, his family’s own murky history, and also puns. The new movie stars Robert Pattinson as our newest, very emo Batman, exploring a new conspiracy-thriller version of Gotham City that’s full of rain and crooked cops, while Nirvana plays over his adventures. It’s an iteration of the endlessly rebooted character that’s as dark as ever, but leans into different facets of that darkness, especially the notion that his vigilantism makes him a sort of self-immolating rock star who wears a lot of black eye makeup. To Matt Reeves, who directed and wrote the film along with Peter Craig, this version of Bruce Wayne isn’t unlike a movie director, trying to make sense of the world through an endless series of night shoots. With the movie out on March 4, Reeves spoke with Vulture about licensing Nirvana, giving Gotham’s problems modern resonances, and paging through riddle books to come up with serial-killer clues.
I have a lot of questions, primarily about the cat carrier that Catwoman has on the back of her motorcycle.
There was a big controversy about that cat carrier! Because the bike design was super cool, and James Chinlund, who has been my production designer since Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, said, “That’s going to change the profile of the bike, man!” And I said I know, but Zoë Kravitz and I have gone on an exploration where these cats are the things she’s caring for and they represent the strays that she collects because she feels like she was a stray and her mother was a stray. So the idea that she’s got a cat with her at the end, that tells you that she’s leaving. So where’s the cat going? We had to have a cat carrier. James, after much harrumphing was like, “Okay, let me work on it.” So yeah, the cat carrier was a critical part of the ending of the story. If she’s going to Bludhaven, she’s got to take her cats.
One of the things that really sets the tone in this movie is the music, and specifically the repeated use of Nirvana’s “Something in the Way.” Why that song specifically, and was it hard to clear?
I listen to music when I write, and when I was writing the first act and trying to get into the mindset of what the movie would be, for some reason, I put on Nirvana and “Something in the Way” and it just clicked for me. There was something about the tone of that music that just felt right. I wrote it into the script, and then the reprise was also always in the script, so that there was an idea of the story coming full circle. Then, Warner Bros. went out and we got the rights. It was one of those things where they were like, “Is this important to you?” And I was like, “It is.” Not a cheap needle drop, but a super important one thematically.
Related to that, the movie has an overall grunge aesthetic, even down to the way that we see Bruce Wayne in the black eye makeup he has to wear under the Batman cowl.
To me, there was an idea of Bruce as a recluse rock star. The way that Cobain was obsessed with his music, but also had an uneasy relationship with the burden of his fame. I thought that made sense for Bruce, because he’s haunted by the fact that everybody knows who he is and the sad history of his family. If anybody sees him out in Gotham, they see that. So he would be kind of jamming in his old manor, but instead of that being with a guitar and amps, it would be being Batman.
It’s interesting to think of being Batman as a creative outlet, as if the way he’s documenting his adventures in his diaries each night is an artistic project for him.
He’s sort of addicted to it, too. It’s a compulsion, this creative drive, and it relates to my approach to filmmaking. To me, moviemaking is trying to make sense of my world. Ever since I made movies as a kid, the idea of having a camera was that it was the one place where you could exert control in a world of chaos. That’s what he’s doing. He’s revisiting this idea of what happened to him in the past that he really can’t control, but he’s haunted by it. The idea of being masked is engaging with your shadow side, and there’s something instinctual that takes over. That is like the creative process.
Your movie does tie its big mystery in with Bruce’s parents’ death, which we’ve seen in many movies before. But you don’t actually put it onscreen. I have to assume that was intentional.
That was critical. I didn’t want to take a path that the other films had done, as it had been done multiple times and really well. But we did have something to add to the excavation of his past. He was 10 years old when this happened, and his image of his parents is stuck in that time. The movie is meant to blow that up, so that as Riddler is revealing the history of these people who are supposed to be pillars of Gotham but end up being corrupt city officials, it also leads back to Bruce’s own origins and his family’s origins. It was meant to make him confront himself, so the story could function as an awakening. The idea was never to see Martha’s pearls again, but to revisit all that, and the idea of questioning — which comes from the comics — his own sanity. His mother suffered because of her family history of some mental illness. And if you’re choosing to go out in this compulsive way to become a vigilante bat, there’s something that doesn’t seem 100 percent sane about that. That was how we wanted to touch on his origins, but in a way that was new.
The Riddler’s clues showcase a lot of the movie’s askew sense of humor, for instance the one about using a severed thumb to access a USB “thumb” drive. How did you approach writing them?
It was really fun. If you’re going to do a serial-killer mystery with ciphers and puzzle pieces that have to fit together, and riddles, that’s a lot of work! I had like 40 riddle books looking for ones that would fit into my narrative. It’s its own weird, Batman-esque creative jam session. But there’s something about that tone. One of my favorite things in the movie is the way Jeffrey Wright deadpans about the Riddler, “This guy is hilarious.” But I wanted to explore Bruce and Batman’s humor, too. What Rob and I talked about was that Batman would be totally without irony. There’s a moment where Jeffrey comes in after Batman punches him to get out of a situation, and he goes, “Man, you really could have pulled that punch.” And, without any irony, Batman goes, “I did.” All the humor from Batman comes from the fact that he has no sense of humor. Even the way Rob tells Catwoman, “You have a lot of cats.” There’s not a joke in that. He’s not kidding. But there’s something funny in a guy who has no sense of humor and says these things. Rob found a way to be very funny, without trying to be clever.
Your version of the Riddler has basically been radicalized by being Too Online, to the point where he’s making videos as if he is a YouTube conspiracy theorist. What made you want to depict the character that way?
The internet is one of the places in the world where he’s found any connection, but it’s an isolated and distorted community. To me, if we were going to do a grounded iteration of Gotham and this character, he should feel like he was of our world. I didn’t want Gotham to be any specific American city, and I wanted it to feel of our time. If the Riddler was going to communicate to people, I thought he would use social media to do it. We hold onto the mythic part of the character we love, but making him relevant to this moment was important to me.
Something that feels very traditionally like a noir in this movie is the idea that there’s corruption in the police department, though given the protests in 2020 around police brutality, that plotline now resonates in a different context. Did those protests affect the script at all?
The script was written before any of that, but the notion of corruption in the city never goes out of style. It’s one reason why the Batman myth endures. I don’t think you’re ever going to run out of corruption in a city.
Another current political analogue that runs through the movie is the mayoral election in the background, with a candidate named Bella Reál, this young progressive who felt like an analogue to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. What was your thinking about introducing that character to the Batman universe?
I liked the idea of somebody who wanted to be a grassroots changemaker, and has an almost naïve optimism. I think there are a lot of people who look at that and go, “Don’t you know that being part of this process is going to change you?” That’s the Riddler’s point of view, that she’s promising change but change can’t happen here. That’s the push and pull of Batman, too. There’s this ambition to make change, and some things remain the same, but that doesn’t mean you don’t engage in the fight. The idea of her being in that stage of her career and having that optimism and coming into this place to make a difference, there was something inspiring to me about that. I also liked the idea of her looking at Bruce and thinking, “What are you doing with all your resources?” He’s blind to the idea that his money could do things for people, and so obsessed with the idea of being Batman that he doesn’t understand that there might be tools he can use to make a difference in other ways.
I liked the idea that, at the end of the movie, he’s forced to confront the notion that he can literally just save people from a flooded stadium instead of punching minions in the face.
That was the critical conception from the beginning that we held onto through the making of the movie. There was the notion that he would start in an appealing version of a desire for vengeance. The character’s born from a personal vendetta, but he has to realize there is a double-edged sword there, and that to take the law into your own hands is a dark path. He’s got to evolve toward representing more than vengeance, otherwise he’s going to be just another toxic force.
Because this movie is set in its own universe, you got to build your own version of Gotham. What were your inspirations for how you designed the city?
Because this story is a mystery and a thriller where the killer is dribbling out details of a conspiracy about how this place is corrupt, it was a little bit like Los Angeles in Chinatown. I wanted Gotham to be a character. So it took a tremendous amount of backstory. I read things about All the President’s Men and the possibility that Whitey Bulger could have been an informant, and by the time we were ready to do the movie, there was an enormous history of this specific Gotham, its corruption, and how it worked. I also just wanted it to feel very visceral and gritty, but not identifiable, so that you couldn’t say New York is Gotham or Chicago must be Gotham. We wanted it to be a Gothic American City. We shot in Liverpool, where there’s a foundation of Gothic architecture, but not the tall buildings. But through careful design and CGI, we could add in the buildings and billboards.
I spent the whole movie on the lookout for Barry Keoghan, who I think shows up right at the end in a jail cell, but even tried to convince myself that he was a valet who took Bruce’s keys at the funeral, just because he vaguely resembled Barry.
So the character’s name is the Unseen Prisoner, and he’s the guy in the cell next to the Riddler at the end of the movie. He’s an original of a character who is very iconic for Batman. There’s another scene that was earlier in the film, which we’ll probably release once the movie comes out, where Batman was trying to get into the head of the Riddler and went to Arkham to try to profile him, and meets this unseen character. Barry gave a really eerie performance, and the scene was great. But the movie is very expansive and it was just one of the scenes I could lift. I’m excited for people to see that scene, because the version of this character he plays is very cool.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.